Wang Wei – The Painter Poet

Who is Wang Wei?

Wang Wei was born into a family of officials and went on to become an official for the government himself. A major factor in Wang Wei’s life was his time spent as a prisoner due to the uprising known as the An Lushan Rebellion. During his time in captivity Wang Wei was forced to work as an official for this rebellious government and was left disillusioned by this whole affair. Wang Wei was a prominent poet during the timeframe of the Tang Dynasty. He was in fact, one of the most popular poets in a time in which poetry was immensely popular. According to the Norton Anthology of World Literature, “Every educated Chinese during the Tang Dynasty was expected to be able to spontaneously dash off a poem with grace, or at least technical competence” (Puchner et al. 1109). This is not really an expectation in the modern age. For Wang Wei to be so popular in a time in which poetry is this big of a deal, really speaks to how impactful his works were. No doubt this is due to themes commonly represented in his works that mirror Buddhist ideas.

Cultural Significance in Paintings

Wang Wei’s poems are steeped in Buddhist ideology. In a country that has long been steeped in Confucian ideals, Daoism and Buddhism took root as an almost counter-culture. Rigid Confucian ideals of duty to family and state would no doubt cause a great deal of stress if left completely unchecked, and the inevitable result of this way of living was a subset of ideas that run contradictory to Confucian norms. Wang Wei’s poetry and many of his painting reflect ideas of emptiness and detachment. The Norton claims that, “Wang Wei often corresponds to the notion of the “emptiness” of things—the fundamental Buddhist conviction that all we perceive is illusion” (1114). This conviction is undeniably at the forefront of many of Wang Wei’s works. One of the things that sets Wang Wei apart from other poets are his paintings that unfortunately we have no originals of. We know these paintings were incredibly popular because while none of the originals have survived, many replicas exist. These paintings were known for the vast landscapes and “…monochrome painting, which uses black ink-wash on white paper; this technique allows the painter to depict landscapes dominated by white” (1113). Often these paintings depict snowy landscapes and vast empty spaces dominated by contrasting areas of white and black. These paintings give us another way to interact with Wang Wei’s poetry that we don’t usually have with poets. To be a multi-faceted artist like this is a unique talent and his popularity reflects this uniqueness. These landscapes tap into these ideas of emptiness and detachment by giving us a state that is naturally ephemeral. The landscape we view is one that is going to change in a matter of minutes, hours, and definitely drastically in the days to come. Snow is one of those things that never stays stagnant for any length of time. It collects and melts away just as soon as it arrived. The impermanence of everything and just how quickly our perceived reality can change is, in my humble opinion, the appeal of these paintings.

Painting with Poetry

Wang Wei’s paintings are no doubt a feature of his work as a whole, but Wang Wei’s poetry paints images for us in its own way. The poem “Lake Yi” plays with these themes of illusion and perception in similar ways to how many of his paintings do. The poem states, “On the lake with one turn of the head: mountain green rolls into white clouds” (Wei 1115). The poem shows the reader how easily our perception of reality shifts with little more than a slight shift in perspective. At one moment we can be viewing green mountains, capped with trees and wildlife, and the next moment we’re viewing white rolling clouds, ever changing in their shape and composition. The way we perceive reality is but a moment away from changing at any time and this lends itself well to Buddhist ideas of detachment from well, everything. If we accept that reality is ever changing then it makes sense that there’s no point in attaching oneself to any particular component of our perceived reality. This applies to family, state, office, or any other component of what often drives human lives. It’s a different worldview from Confucian ideals and even quite different from our own American ideals. Both cultures value ideas of industriousness and elevating yourself through hard work but poetry like this reminds us that while we certainly can do all of this, it is all ultimately ephemeral in nature. It reminds us to be in the moment, because things can shift so quickly.

Conclusion

Ultimately that’s what makes Wang Wei’s work so powerful. It encourages people to detach themselves from the stressors of their lives and that’s something a lot of people really need. It does this in a unique, multimodal way that you don’t get with a lot of poets by combining poetry with painting to present a literary canvas that presents us with insight into Buddhist culture we might not have had access to otherwise. In a way it’s even poetic that none of Wang Wei’s original paintings have survived, as this further accents the ephemeral nature of all things that he wants us to consider. Even his own works have shifted and changed over time through adaptations and replicas being created to model his work. Even his poetry, translated and transcribed into other languages doesn’t hold the same form it originally did. The way we perceive his poetry is an illusion just as much as the way we view his paintings. That’s really the charm of Wang Wei for me.

Works Cited

Wei, Wang. “Lake Yi.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. edited by Martin Puchner et al., 4th ed., vol. B, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1113-1115

Wei, Wang. “Snowy Stream.” China Online Museum. http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/painting-            wang-wei-snowy-stream.php